Atlantic Cities

Manhattan's Next Great Waterfront Park

Manhattan's Next Great Waterfront Park
Courtesy of the Municipal Art Society of New York

When it comes to waterfront parkland in Manhattan, the west side has a long line of enjoyable access to the Hudson River, from Chelsea Piers to Riverside Park. By contrast, the east side offers such charming approaches to the East River as … F.D.R. Drive or the campus of the United Nations. You could call it an east coast-west coast feud, but that implies a relative balance of power that presently doesn't exist.

But if the past year is any indication, a sea change might be coming to the east side riverfront. Last March, Mayor Michael Bloomberg released a major plan to improve the city's waterfronts, particularly along the East River. In July the Municipal Art Society of New York organized a design workshop to consider plans for what's being called Waterside Pier, and in October a major funding hurdle was passed. Last month the society released a report on the prospects for Waterside Pier called "New York's Next Great Waterfront Park."

Waterside Pier would fall between 38th and 41st streets along the East River — an area of the city "that is said to have the lowest ratio of open space to residents and office workers in the city," according to The New York Times. The space was formerly home to a huge power plant owned by utility giant Consolidated Edison that was demolished several years back, but the pier now sits mostly unused. Initial plans for the grounds called for the development of a cluster of residential towers, but that idea stalled during the recession.

In July the city received $13 million from Con Ed to go toward rehabilitating the pier. At the same time the Municipal Art Society gathered various city officials, designers, and community leaders to discuss converting the 34,000-square-foot pier into a riverfront park. The space itself is far from ideal: it's bounded on the west by F.D.R. Drive. and on the north by a dead end; the only access is through a small park adjacent to the south. Still the workshop generated a number of ideas for revitalizing the space, and the society's December report provides a summary of those possibilities.

Participants believed a key to Waterside Pier will be creating pedestrian and bike friendly access points that don't bring them into close contact with the high-speed traffic cruising down F.D.R. Drive. One proposal is to position a bike-share station at the south end of the park, to attract visitors through its natural entrance. Designers also believe it's critical to mitigate the noise and pollution that comes from the traffic on the F.D.R., and many feel the park needs some sort of iconic name — perhaps East Bay Park — to entice city residents who don't typically associate midtown east with waterfront access.

The July workshop also outlined some potential design elements. Those include incorporating attractive greenery into the structural rehabilitation of the pier itself, perhaps through tree coverage or sloping lawns. Access to the East River itself will be another major feature of the park, either through steps, boat docks, fishing areas, tidal pools, viewing platforms, or any mix of the above. One idea called for an elevated area that would serve as host to public events like outdoor concerts in warm weather and sledding grounds in cold; another called for a small ecology lab where visitors could learn about the potential of climate change to impact the island.

Ultimately Waterside Pier — or whatever it ends up becoming — will be part of a long ribbon of parkland the city hopes to create along the East River, from 38th to 60th streets. In addition to the pier this east side waterfront will include a walkway east of the U.N. campus from 41st to 51st streets, an esplanade from 53rd to 59th streets, and generally improved access to the water from surrounding neighborhoods. Funding for this long-term plan got a big boost in October, when the city reached a preliminary deal that would allow the U.N. to construct a building on a former park in exchange for a payment of roughly $70 million that would go toward the East River waterfront vision. 

All images courtesy of the Municipal Art Society of New York

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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